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“Hello” is a new beginning, a path to discovery.”- Jean Houston
I came across a saying some years ago. It went something like this: “I don’t want to know how much money you make. I want to know what makes your heart sing.”
This seems like a good first step to living community. Get beneath the values associated with the material world that so often permeate social small talk. Speak and listen, instead, to the heart and soul.
I call this experience “Genuine Interest”—a fundamental quality of character in living community.
We so easily give in to the pattern, the stereotypical opening, the usual agenda. “Hello.” I say to you. And the me, who likes to stay ahead of the game, is already drawing conclusions. “What a warm-hearted person she seems to be. I wonder if she works at the university. Probably not, she doesn’t look like an intellectual.” Or, to be negative, “Her hair looks silly. She must be a floozy. Probably not too bright.”
The social science grapevine says that human beings speak over 85,000 words to themselves each day. Seventy per cent of these words are about other people. Sixty to seventy per cent of these words about other people are negative. Essentially, if the grapevine is to be believed, we spend much of each day finding fault with those around us in the privacy of self-talk.
Genuine interest is an opening into a completely new way of connecting with others. “Hello,” I say to you. And deep inside, I am open to a world I could never predict. “I wonder who you are. I wonder what your life is like.” This doesn’t mean that I come up to you and stare into your eyes and ask, “What strikes awe into you?” Rather, I carry genuine interest within me as I say “Hello.” And you can see it in my eyes.
When I do this you sense the spaciousness in me. We are just two people coming together for a moment in time.
Sounds so simple, doesn’t it? But the implications can be profound. As I listen to your words, I begin to create a sense of you. The more I see and listen, the more fascinated I become. My negative self-talk disappears. My genuine interest in you is unending.
What is the most important thing you learned from your parents or those who cared for you when you were young?
What do you think we should we be doing with our children so they become good ancestors?
How long has your longest friendship lasted? Why has it lasted so long?
What do you value most about the work you do?
What do you find intolerable?
What do you fear?
What do these words mean to you: duty, power, spirit, love?
And on . . . Tell me more.
After all, you are a human being. My explore with you could go on forever.
A child’s activity comes to mind when I think of genuine interest. It is called the “A, B, Cs.” It goes like this. We sit in a circle. The object of the game is to get as far as we can in the alphabet. Any person can say any letter, but they have to be said sequentially.
Participants immediately come up with ways to organize the process, “We take turns in order around the circle. We raise our hands if we want to speak.” And so on. So we try. And we get through the alphabet, but we don’t have any fun.
So we try once more with three simple rules this time. Anybody can say any letter at random, and, again, they must be said sequentially. And if any two or more say a letter together (at the same time) we have to go back to the beginning.
We try a few times without success. Then, in concert, we realize that to succeed we have to practice the deepest listening possible. We have to listen with our minds, our hearts, our bodies, and our souls. We use the meanings in the Chinese character for “to listen” as our guide.*
The circle becomes silent. The atmosphere is beautifully relaxed and intense at the same time. Slowly we begin to say letters, and because we are listening deeply now we get through the alphabet completely more often than not. And we are ecstatic.
In “Island” Aldous Huxley wrote of a character who trained his parrot to say “Pay attention.” every so often. That’s what we all have to do if we wish to live community. We have to pay attention more deeply than we imagined possible.
*The Chinese character for “to listen” consists of five sub-characters with the meanings “you, eyes, ears, undivided attention, heart.”